Growing frictions among nations bordering the South China Sea, exacerbated by the increasing assertiveness of the Chinese military, could lead to armed confrontation and even war, a leading Australian foreign policy think tank warned yesterday.
The Lowy Institute, whose report coincided with the US Senate approving a resolution deploring China's use of force against Vietnamese and Philippine ships, said Asia was becoming "a danger zone for incidents at sea".
There has been an escalation in recent weeks of tensions between China – which claims sovereignty in the South China Sea – and rival territorial claimants. Some of the disputes focus on two sets of islands, the Spratlys and the Paracels, where the waters are potentially rich in oil and natural gas.
The Lowy Institute report on maritime security expressed particular concern about frictions between China and the US, Japan and India, which it said were likely to persist and intensify.
"The sea lanes are becoming more crowded, contested and vulnerable to armed strife," it warned. "Naval and air forces are being strengthened amid shifting balances of economic strategic weight. As the number and tempo of incidents increases, so does the likelihood that an episode will escalate to armed confrontation, diplomatic crisis or possibly even conflict."
Chinese ships have harassed Vietnamese oil exploration vessels recently and are also accused of ramming a Philippine ship, according to the Senate resolution. The Senate said it deplored the use of force by China, and urged all parties asserting territorial claims to refrain from using force.
Jim Webb, chairman of an east Asian and Pacific affairs subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said: "A growing number of nations around the South China Sea are now voicing serious concerns about China's pattern of intimidation."
China said last week, however, that it was committed to a peaceful resolution, and that its territorial claims did not interfere with the right of other nations to travel through the contested waters.